Penn State Football

Who will surprise, shine for Penn State football in 2018? Here are our fearless predictions

Penn State wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins tosses the ball around with teammates after practice on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018.
Penn State wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins tosses the ball around with teammates after practice on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018.

With the Penn State football season — finally — just around the corner, we decided to take our predictions beyond the usual season record.

Who’ll earn national recognition this season? And who’ll surprise? Here are four of our fearless predictions on that and more:

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Penn State wide receiver Juwan Johnson makes a catch right over the goal line during practice on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018. Abby Drey

John McGonigal: Juwan Johnson is a Biletnikoff Award finalist

Bobby Engram — who was by far and away voted Penn State’s greatest wide receiver of all-time — is the only Nittany Lion to ever be a finalist for the Fred Biletnikoff Award.

Juwan Johnson is going to change that. The redshirt junior, who quietly had the second-most receptions (54) and receiving yards (701) on the team last year, is built for a truly breakout campaign.

Saquon Barkley, DaeSean Hamilton, Mike Gesicki and Saeed Blacknall are gone. That’s 181 catches, 2,341 yards and 23 touchdowns, over 60 percent of Penn State’s 2017 production in all three categories.

DeAndre Thompkins will get his, while emerging youngsters KJ Hamler, Jahan Dotson and Justin Shorter should cut into those losses. But Johnson — a sturdy, speedy and fluid 6-foot-4 pass-catcher — is set to be Trace McSorley’s unquestioned No. 1 target.

“When we need it the most, I want to be that guy to make the play,” Johnson told the CDT in April. “Since I was young, I believed I could do anything.”

So, what would Johnson have to do, statistically, to put himself in the Biletnikoff conversation?

Well, the last nine finalists averaged 88.6 catches, 1,366.9 receiving yards and 13.3 touchdowns. And that reception number is inflated a bit by Zay Jones’ 157-catch season in 2016. Without that aberration, the average is closer to 80.

That’s still a significant leap for Johnson. But it’s happened before to Biletnikoff finalists. Northwestern’s Austin Carr went from 302 yards and two touchdowns in 2015 to 1,247 and 12 the following year. Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook went from a solid 46 catches, 743 yards and four scores to a robust 80, 1,524 and 17 receiving line in 2016.

In the offseason, Eric Galko of Optimum Scouting pegged Johnson as a future first-round talent, placing him No. 7 overall in his way-too-early 2019 NFL mock draft. “It’s all there,” Galko said. “He’ really has that potential, that ceiling to be one of the NFL’s best receivers.”

Eight Biletnikoff finalists have been selected in the first round since 2013.

Without a program record-setter at wideout and tight end and a pass-catching back like Barkley, Johnson has the opportunity to be one of those guys. And he is poised to take it.

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Penn State running back Miles Sanders tries to dodge through defenders during practice on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018. Abby Drey

Josh Moyer: Miles Sanders rushes for more than 1,271 yards — beating out Saquon Barkley’s 2017 totals

Sanders having big shoes to fill might be the understatement of the offseason.

Barkley was an instant legend, a freshman who garnered comparisons to Curt Warner and a junior who excited a SportsCenter-watching nation every Saturday night. His absence will obviously be felt this season, but that doesn’t mean running back is a question mark.

No, with an improved offensive line and a more straight-ahead running style, Sanders should post up better rushing numbers than Barkley. He may not be as explosive and he may not be in contention for the Heisman, but he’ll be effective. That means fewer 60-yard runs, but it also means fewer two-yard losses.

With McSorley, this offense doesn’t hinge on whether Sanders breaks a run every game. Opposing defenses shouldn’t load the box quite like years past, forcing McSorley to beat them through the air — because he will. He’s arguably become the best quarterback in all of college football, and Sanders is the beneficiary of that.

He should set the tone early, with a 100-plus yard performance against Appalachian State. It’ll only get better from there.

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Penn State defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos snaps on his helmet during practice on Tuesday, August 21, 2018. Abby Drey

McGonigal: Defense eclipses 50 sacks on the season

By all means, have your doubts about how the Nittany Lions’ defense will hold up without Marcus Allen, Jason Cabinda, Grant Haley, Christian Campbell, Manny Bowen, Troy Apke, Curtis Cothran, Parker Cothren, Tyrell Chavis and Ryan Buchholz.

But Brent Pry’s guys are going to take down the quarterback.

The Nittany Lions hit 46 sacks in 2015, 40 in 2016 and 42 last season, but Penn State’s defensive ends have really led the charge this offseason, being vocal about a 50-sack goal for the unit.

What’s the magic behind the number 50? That single-season total has been reached less than a dozen times since 2004 and never by a Big Ten squad in that span.

But Penn State has the horses to do it in 2018.

Personally, Shareef Miller wants to break Carl Nassib’s 15.5-sack single-season program record, so that would be a start.

Miller and Shaka Toney return after posting five and four sacks, respectively, in 2017. Toney, primarily an edge rusher last year, put on weight and transformed into an every down D-end. But he won’t start the season, as sophomore Yetur Gross-Matos — who has been called a “freak” countless times since arriving in Happy Valley — gears up for a dynamic campaign. Assistant coach Sean Spencer can also roll out Shane Simmons, Daniel Joseph and Jayson Oweh.

And that’s just the edge rushers. Don’t forget about Cam Brown’s length at outside linebacker, Koa Farmer’s nose for the football, Nick Scott’s intensity coming down from safety, Donovan Johnson’s speed and Micah Parsons’ unbelievable athleticism.

For the Nittany Lions, they feel like it’s time to take the next step. They don’t want another 40-sack season. They want 50 — and they’ll reach that goal.

Moyer: DeAndre Thompkins earns All-America recognition

This is probably a safer prediction than most people realize. Thompkins is an elite punt returner, and his speed should have him on at least one All-America list by season’s end.

Last year, there were just five players who averaged more than 12 yards a punt return. Of those five, just two are back this season — Thompkins and Boston College’s Michael Walker.

A number of media outlets use only an overall returner on their AA teams, and Walker has the edge there since he’s also an incredible kick returner. But others, such as Phil Steele, have a separate spot for punt returner — and that’s where Thompkins should earn a spot.

With 4.34 speed, Thompkins is one of the fastest players in the Big Ten. And his big-play ability has been on display before: Look no further than his 61-yard punt return TD against Akron last season.

Thompkins takes a lot of pride in his return ability, and he should shine there again in 2018. He’s virtually a lock to be all-conference — he was second-team All-Big Ten last year — and projecting national recognition isn’t much of a stretch.